Manmohan Singh has effected a fundamental shift in India’s Pakistan policy. From consistently viewing the entire Pakistani state as the perpetrator of terrorism, New Delhi has explicitly recognised that Islamabad is a victim of terrorism as well, and could in fact evolve as a partner in dealing with the problem. The policy change has infused life into a comatose peace process. It also holds the promise of transforming the conflictive discourse and blame game that has marked relations between the two establishments.
Meeting on the sidelines of the NAM (Non-Aligned Movement) summit in Havana, Prime Minister Singh and Pervez Musharraf decided to be imaginative, and not let the radical outfits dictate the agenda. The framework was already present in previous joint statements: Pakistan had repeatedly promised it would not allow its soil to be used for terrorist activities against India, while India agreed to discuss all issues in the Composite Dialogue, including Kashmir. However, this agreement was in danger of falling apart. Both countries were increasingly feeling that the other was not living up to its end of the bargain. This was particularly true in the case of India, where the recent spate of attacks, from Benaras temples to Delhi marketplaces and Bombay trains, had led to abundant scepticism about Pakistan’s political will to curb extremist militancy.
That is why the decision of the two leaders to put in place joint, institutionalised anti-terrorism mechanisms to identify and implement counter-terrorism initiatives and investigations is an extremely creditworthy achievement. The general-president and the prime minister deserve special praise for thinking out of the box, in particular for realising that India and Pakistan are on the same side. For this reason, the sudden barrage of criticism against the deal amongst Delhi’s intelligentsia and political circles is entirely misplaced.
Prime Minister Singh is being attacked by the Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as some retired national security officials, for naiveté in believing that the ‘patrons of terror’ will ever help India tackle terrorism. At the same time, commentators of the left believe that the shift has come about due to pressure from the US. They do not necessarily have a problem with the text of the agreement, just with the perception that it is symptomatic of the manner in which Delhi is following Washington’s diktats.
In all this, what the critics overlook is the internal political dynamic in Pakistan, where the militants and President Musharraf are clearly on opposite sides as of now. They also ignore a simple premise: India cannot hope to solve the problem of militancy, especially that which emanates from Pakistan-based groups, without Islamabad’s help. From a strategic perspective, setting up joint mechanisms can only make the Pakistani government more accountable vis-à-vis New Delhi about the steps it is taking to curb the activities of such groups. Islamabad should be happy as well, for India has at long last publicly accepted Pakistan’s denial of involvement in terrorist attacks, as well as reiterated its commitment to finding a solution on the Kashmir issue.
Most importantly, the meeting between the two leaders has ensured that the Composite Dialogue is back on track. The fact that newer avenues of understanding have emerged, and differences narrowed, bodes well for the future. We have consistently argued in these pages that the solution is more engagement between the two countries, not less, particularly on issues that are seen as thorny and divisive. The Havana breakthrough is a good step in that direction.